One sentence to sum up the football championship . . .
Ray-Bans and rosary beads and other totems at the ready, then, for, just like that, it’s back: the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, sponsored by, oh, who cares, who cares; back in all towns and villages for the 131st summer and counting, the big sprawling competition that is less of a sports tournament than a four-month-long state of mind and a national conversation in which many of Ireland’s favourite themes – the weather, the traffic, the price of pints in the city versus down the country, the unfairness of life, Joe Brolly, the state of the roads, umpires, Kerry cuteness, the weaker counties, emigration, the national anthem, the best way to get into/out of Clones, whether Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney on a cloudless day when the ball is thrown in and hangs there for an eternal second like some magical orb in front of Mount Brandon as Cork and Kerry hands reach skywards might not, in fact, just about edge out the Pyramids and the Lighthouse of Alexandria as one of the true wonders of the world, whether the referee was “playing” for a draw, the greed of the GAA, the death of the kicking game, the decline of first-time hurling, Séamus Darby’s goal, Sky, RTÉ, handbags-stuff, red cards, injury time, Cody, the consolation of The South Wind Blows on the long dusty evening drives home, the unbearable passion of John Mullane, the magisterial diplomacy of Michael Lyster, Mayo, the fashion sense on The Sunday Game, and most of all, the importance of making The Most Of The Day Out – which has always been the point of the whole shebang; the ritual of going to the game; of parking in the wee lane there behind the cathedral that your uncle told you about when he drove a carload of you that day it lashed rain, of meeting your brother who’s just off the plane from JFK in Kennedy’s of Drumcondra in time for the minor game; of being willing to ignore the perpetual unfairness of being from Leitrim trying to take on the might of Mayo or Galway or going to the Mackey Stand because that’s where you saw your first game with your father in ’62 or ’79 or ’04; of trying to explain the ineffable coolness of Jimmy Barry Murphy circa 1982 to your 16-year-old who thinks that Cork hurling began with Setanta Ó hAilpín or leaving Killeshandra for Breffni telling your six-year-old that even though Cavan have only won a lone Ulster championship in 50 years, they still have twice as many titles as any other county . . . that they are that good and watch, then, as the narrow shoulders straighten a little with this newfound Pride of Place – on which the whole thing depends; the irreversible conviction all Irish people share that their own county is, when all’s said and done, better than anywhere else in the world and although you can give out stink about it for 364 days of the year, when the Sunday comes that the car is sweltering and there’s a two-mile tailback of cars all flying the county flags and it feels like an entire tribe is Rising, with everyone sharing this belief that The County might be about to do something special and that’s when true colours come out and the All-Ireland championship permits otherwise mild and reserved Irish men and women to sometimes lose themselves, in those stands and on those terraces, for that hour when the game is on and they know they are going completely berserk but they can’t help it because they’ve been waiting five or 15 or 50 years for this moment and it’s so close they can almost touch it and actually winning would seem like the kind of miracle – that has always been central to the allure of the All-Ireland championship; Galway in ’80, Offaly in ’82, Donegal in ’92, Derry in ’93, Leitrim in ’94, Clare in ’95, Fermanagh in ’04; this fabulous notion that counties can produce brilliant teams which come raging out of the darkness every so often and even though the system is unfair and the bigger counties almost always win, that off-chance of surprise holds the beauty of it, even if this summer will see the unveiling of the so-called Super 8s – a phrase which does not roll naturally off the Gael’s tongue and which has a kind of corporate American hokiness about it, as if it was dreamed up in a brainstorming session by a persuasive pan-Atlantic type named Lance or Guy and which has already convinced many that the provincial championships are as good as dead because they don’t mean anything anymore, that all that matters for teams now is making it to these Super 8s – which, if true, will confirm the worst fears and suspicions of a good portion of the country who are convinced that these are the end of days for the old, beloved championship and that the Super 8s wheeze is just further proof that the GAA championship has now gone the way of all other big sports events , there to be squeezed and spun to suit the corporate interests and the sponsors and the television companies, that it may be, as An Spailpín Fánach warned this week, “an abomination . . . a crime and a sin that the Super 8s now rig the Championship to ensure that only the rich survive” – and that view has to be respected because the lifeblood of the All-Ireland championship is dependent on the idea that it belongs to everyone and that it possesses a kind of localised energy that you can’t really fabricate or market or in truth really even understand; that to be in the world of Brewster Park, say, for Fermanagh v Armagh is to remain magically outside the clutches of the world as shaped by Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, where you’re fully alive and engaged and so fully involved in those next seconds of your team and county’s future that you can hardly dare to breathe.
Enjoy it, now.
. . . and that’s when true colours come out and the All-Ireland championship permits otherwise mild and reserved Irish men and women to sometimes lose themselves, in those stands and on those terraces, for that hour when the game is on . . .